Capitalism and socialism are just words

Why the simplistic dichotomy is a bad way to think about economics

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Sean Rayford/Getty Images, Joshua Lott/Getty Images, Asya_mix/iStock, javarman3/iStock)

As the field of Democratic Party presidential contenders narrows, we may well find ourselves stuck in a big ideas debate over the merits of "capitalism" versus "socialism." Of the three front-runners, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) famously called herself "a capitalist to my bones," while Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) identifies as a democratic socialist. Former Vice President Joe Biden seems to be... whatever will keep the big money donors rolling in. Meanwhile, a lot of centrists, liberals and leftists are drawing up battle lines depending on whose label they prefer.

But "socialism" and "capitalism" are just words. And the way they get used in everyday debate covers a vast and diverse array of economic arrangements. At the edges, they bleed into one another to the point you can't tell where one ends and one begins.

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